The Politics    Thursday, October 8, 2015

Out with the old, in with the older

By Michael Lucy

Out with the old, in with the older
As an Abbott-era relic moves on, Howard-era relics take his place

Brian Loughnane resigned today as federal director of the Liberal party. After last month’s removal of Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin, Loughnane (Credlin’s husband) was beginning to look like a reminder of the bad old days. He was party director for 12 years, and the party’s campaign director for the last four federal elections. His exit will mark the real end of the Abbott experiment, and a return to Howardism (admittedly with Turnbullian characteristics).

Malcolm Turnbull gave him a decent farewell, while Tony Abbott used an effusive statement to make a few points about the importance of “party discipline” and “not playing politics”. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t sniping.) His replacement has not been announced but it is expected to be Tony Nutt, currently the party’s NSW director, who is already working in Turnbull’s office. Nutt also worked for John Howard for many years, first as an adviser and then as chief of staff, and is variously described as a “fixer” and a “head-kicker”.

Nutt reportedly did not get along with Abbott and Credlin, but has strong relationships with Turnbull and with Turnbull’s cabinet secretary, senator Arthur Sinodinos. Sinodinos, also a former Howard chief of staff, was heavily involved in the scheme to oust Abbott and install Turnbull in the PM’s office.

Sinodinos comes across as being much like Turnbull: urbane, pragmatic, experienced in investment banking, not much driven by the grudges and wild fits of unreasonable sentiment that characterised Abbott’s time in office. He is by all accounts well liked and good at getting things done.

No-one seems to be talking about the fact that he stepped down as assistant treasurer 18 months ago, after he was called in front of ICAC over his time as deputy chairman of a company called Australian Water Holdings, linked to the notorious Obeid family. At AWH, he was paid $200,000 a year to do very little except have contacts in government, and if AWH had secured a certain government contract (it didn’t) he would have stood to gain as much as $20 million. At the same time, AWH donated $74,000 to the NSW Liberal party, of which Sinodinos was then treasurer.

Sinodinos is well known for having a good memory and a strong grasp of affairs, but before ICAC his memory seemed to go blank as he denied knowing much about anything related to AWH. Later, while the investigation was ongoing, he told a journalist “It’s possible even I don’t understand” what he did at AWH. (That’s from a terrific Good Weekend profile that does not reflect very well on Sinodinos.)

Fortunately for Sinodinos, in April a High Court finding in an unrelated case determined that ICAC may well have been operating outside its remit in the AWH investigation, and it remains to be seen whether the investigation will continue in some form. He has said that he is “prepared to stand in the public square to defend [him]self” if need be. There are certainly questions he needs to answer.

 

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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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